I will be moving very soon, and this has me thinking about how books can be a total drag…in the quite literal sense. My wife and I both have a considerable collection of books and now we have to move all those books. Shouldn’t the advent of e-books render obsolete our need to haul tomes of paper to our new home? I have some quick thoughts about this. It is true that e-ink has made electronic documents attractive to even those (like myself) who find reading backlit displays to be fatiguing. However, in one way (and perhaps only one way) paper documents are superior to electronic ones. An electronic document requires two (and perhaps more) stages of interpretation; a computer takes a digital file and converts it to human language sentences on a screen. Then the reader takes this document and interprets it; this leads to an understanding of the text.
I don’t really want to get caught up in the minutia of how either of these interpretation stages takes place (I know too little about either one to make such talk intelligent), but it does seem that the computer portion of the interpretation is fraught with far more peril than the human end. Human beings have an incredible ability to find patterns, especially when those patterns are well learned like language. This means that we can look at a document that is very degraded (most people have done this before) and are able to get the meaning out of the sentences. A document might look like absolute crap, yet the basic meaning of it can be interpreted by a human. Computers have a much harder time doing this. Imagine taking a cd and gouging it in several places; although it is possible that some equipment could salvage the data on this disk, it would not be the sort the average person would posses. On the other hand, comparable damage done to a book would be easily deciphered by an average (or even below average) human reader.
There is also a secondary concern of having to interpret computer files twice. It might be the case that pdf readers eventual disappear, such that one can not (easily) convert files into english from their digital forms. Of course, English readers could also disappear (thus rendering books un-readable) but this would also render the pdf files in English obsolete. The pdf file is therefore more susceptible to un-intelligibility because either the loss of pdf readers or English readers would render them un-readable. The intelligibility of (English) books only requires the existence of English ut readers.
But, maybe paper just degrades faster than cds or other forms of computer memory; this would be a huge drawback for paper. I don’t know how well acid free paper (typically used in libraries) would stand up to a good cd over the years. This would be an interesting to test.